Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Zimmern’

Flying Filet Mignon

April 23, 2014

Cranes are North America’s tallest birds.  There are 2 species of cranes that live on this continent–the sandhill (Grus canadensis) and the rare whooping (Grus americana).  The former grows to as much as 4 feet tall, while the latter can grow a few inches taller than its cousin.


Top photo is of sandhill cranes; the bottom is of whooping cranes.

Cranes inhabit open environments such as savannahs, marshes, and agricultural fields where they can use their keen eyesight to detect and flee from potential threats.  They are omnivorous, feeding upon grains, underground tubers, small vertebrates, shellfish, and insects.  Oddly enough, they don’t usually eat fish.  They were notorious among pre-Civil War planters for digging up leftover sweet potatoes missed by slave harvesters.  Today, they still take advantage of inefficient machine harvesting and feed on leftover grain in farmer’s fields.

Some species of crane has lived in North America for at least 10 million years.  A species resembling the extant crowned crane of Africa lived in Nebraska during the Miocene.  Its fossils were among those found at the Ashfall Fossil Beds located in that state.  Sandhill crane fossils dating to the early Pleistocene (~2 million BP) have been excavated from the Leisey Shell Pits in Florida.  Both species of crane are well represented in Florida’s fossil record, and a crane specimen was also excavated from Bell Cave, Alabama.

Both sandhill and whooping cranes were abundant in southeastern North America when Europeans began colonizing the region.  John Lawson referred to them as “hoopers” because of the loud sound the whooping cranes make.  J.J. Audubon wrote their calls could be heard from 3 miles away, thanks to their 5 foot long vocal cords.  Audubon recounts an humorous experience he had when hunting a crane.  He was traveling on a boat down the Mississippi River when he spotted a flock of cranes.  He jumped off the boat and took a shooting position but was so anxious to show off his marksmanship that he made a bad shot and merely winged one while the rest flew away and escaped.  The injured bird couldn’t fly and Audubon began chasing it across the savannah.  He trapped it against a fallen long, but the bird spread out its wings and charged him.  Audubon, afraid of the long sharp bill, turned around and fled toward the boat with big bird in hot pursuit, a spectacle that caused his companions to laugh heartily.  One of his companions saved him by using a paddle to bludgeon the agressive bird to death.

Like all of North America’s most spectacular species, cranes were nearly overhunted into oblivion.  Hunters especially desire cranes because they are a delicacy known as “ribeye of the sky.”  I’ve never had the chance to eat crane, but I have tried ostrich and it tastes exactly like beef tenderloin, therefore I think “flying filet mignon” might be a more accurate nickname.  Reportedly, crane meat is lean but ribeye is a very fatty cut of steak. (If it was up to me,  all ribeye steaks would be ground into hamburger–that’s all this cut is good for.)

The good taste of crane meat almost doomed whooping cranes to extinction.  Whooping cranes completely disappeared from eastern North America–the last sighting of this species in Georgia was on St. Simon’s Island in 1885.  The entire population fell to just 15 birds, but with federal protection the western population has increased to 270 birds.  They summer in Wood Buffalo National Park Canada, and they winter in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.  An attempt to establish a second western population failed because the birds were hatched using sandhill cranes as surrogate parents.  The whooping cranes in this experimental population imprinted on sandhill cranes and wouldn’t mate with their own kind.  An attempt to re-establish an eastern population has been more successful.  There are now 104 whooping cranes that summer in Necedes National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin and winter in St. Marks NWR, Florida (which I visited last summer.  See:  Scientists used hand puppets resembling whooping cranes to rear the founders of this population, and they got them to imprint on fixed winged aircraft that led them on a migration to their winter habitat.  This population is currently unsustainable because a species of biting black fly is preventing the birds from having successful nesting.  Researchers hope to move the cranes to a different area of Wisconsin where this species of fly doesn’t live.

Whooping cranes following fixed wing aircraft they imprinted on.

Sandhill cranes populations are in much better shape than those of their cousins, though they have been much reduced compared to their former abundance.  A year round population of sandhill cranes lives in south Georgia and Florida.  This population is augmented by winter migrants that spend summers in northern states and Canada.  Some nothern migrants also winter in Louisiana and Texas.  Last year, Tennessee opened a hunting season on sandhill cranes.  When I first heard about this, I thought it was a mistake, but I changed my mind.  An estimated population of 87,000 sandhill cranes migrate through Tennessee but the state only issued a total of 1200 permits, and to be eligible, hunters have to take a course proving they can tell the difference between a sandhill crane and the rare protected whooping crane.  I doubt such a conservative limit will put much of a dent in the population.  Moreover, sandhill cranes are difficult to approach and not every hunter is guaranteed to bag one.

Andrew Zimmern and the hunters who bagged a sandhill crane for an episode of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel.

I like Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods.  However, I take issue with the excuse he used when justifying his hunt for sandhill cranes.  He joined some hunters in Tennessee in order to bag one for his show.  He claimed the birds ravaged farmer’s fields and drove away ducks and geese.  Supposedly, these factors were a sound reason for controlling their numbers.  This is pure bullshit.  Farmers have already harvested most of their crops by late fall–the time of year when cranes travel through Tennessee.  Ducks and geese co-existed with cranes for millions of years before man ever entered North America.  Hunting cranes is not a necessary policy for managing their numbers.  Why can’t Zimmern just be honest and admit he wants to kill the birds because they taste good?

Another pet peeve I have is hunters who claim they are “harvesting” an animal.  Harvest means picking an apple or an ear of corn.  Using the word “harvesting” as an euphemism for killing is just dishonest.  To “harvest” an animal usually means shooting it, and I’m pretty sure the animal feels lots of pain when the bullet or shotgun pellets are tearing through their nerves.  I’m not against hunting for food.  I enjoy the flavor of wild game meat and would eat nothing but this healthy alternative, if I had the opportunity.  Why can’t people just be honest about it?  Hunting is killing…not “harvesting.”


Gatlinburg, Tennessee–A Tale of a Tourist Trap Nightmare

June 20, 2010

I’m taking a break this week from my usual essays about Pleistocene Georgia to write a travelogue of a vacation my family forced upon me.  For my daughter’s 15th birthday my wife promised her a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a crowded tourist trap, bordering the north end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is itself an overhyped haven for wildlife.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The sidewalks are jammed with tourists from early morning till midnight, and they come from all over the world, including Ohio, Louisiana, Iowa, Florida, Texas, Missouri, Japan, and Germany.  Little shops and stores, like cigars crammed inside a tin can, stand in line on both sides of the confusing winding streets, beckoning the tourists to throw money their way.  There’s a Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Store, a Guinness Book of World Records Museum, a wax museum, a celebrity car museum, a hat and cowboy boot outlet, a country western bar, pancake houses and barbecue restaurants, a McDonalds, and untold other high, low, and middle end stores.  All this exists but with precious little parking.   There are no alleys in between the stores and no parking lots in front or to the sides of the businesses.  We found a parking lot in back of one museum that cost us $10.  My wife is disabled and I didn’t want to have to wheel her chair across town.  Gatlinburg’s not that big–I recommend (if tourist traps are your cup of tea) to hike downtown from your motel, or you can take one of the trolleys.  The streets are interspersed with rights of way for walking tourists, but out-of-town motorists don’t realize this, creating a dangerous hazard.  Other motorists disregarded the pedestrian rights of way, until they saw me stopping.

My daughter chose to throw our money away at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum

I found this freak show rather lame and outdated, but I guess it’s ok for kids.  There’s nothing here surprising to a person well versed in science and history.

This is a hairball from a pig.  The poor animal must have coughed its lungs up to get this out.

This is a photo of me next to a replica of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man to ever live.  In a boxing match between us it would’ve been hard for me to land punches above the belt.

This poster of spiderman is made out of real spider webs.  Amazing!

This is a medieval chastity belt.  I bet men found a way to overcome this.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Mark Gelbart Eats an Eyeball–Believe it…or Not

We ate supper one night at the Smoky Mountain Trout House, an overpriced tourist trap restaurant.  They serve trout 13 different ways.  The sides were nothing special–frozen crinkle cut french fries, the driest hushpuppies I ever ate, and bottled salad dressing.  The trout was good–I wolfed down a whole crispy fried one.  This was the first time I’d ever eaten a fish with the head left on.  I made Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods proud when I dared to eat a fish’s eyeball.  It tasted strong, much fishier than the flesh, and I could feel the solid texture of the lens on my tongue.  I didn’t eat the other eyeball and don’t recommend eating them, unless starvation is imminent.

We ate lunch at the Flying Pig Smokehouse.  The prices here were more family friendly, and the barbecue genuine.  The apple cinnamon barbecue sauce went well with smoky pork.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I highly recommend this park for those interested in botany.  Situated as it is in the middle of eastern North America and with varying elevations, plant species diversity is high.  There are plants that prefer warm climate growing next to species with cold climate affinities, much like what grew further south in Georgia during the Ice Age.  I found hemlock, white pine, loblolly pine, white oak, chestnut oak, northern red oak, beech, birch, elm, tulip, red maple, box elder, buckeye, sweetgum, sycamore, hickory, bigleaf magnolia, and black walnut.  The large numbers of black walnut within the park boundaries surprised me.  This tree’s wood is prized by furniture makers.  It’s rare outside the park, though it formerly was a common species of our eastern deciduous forest.  Rhodadendron was common in the understory.

This is the view from Newfound Gap.  The mountains are literally smoking.

Meigs Falls

Rhodadendron in the center of the photo.

This is a potential bear den next to the Appalachian trail.  When large mature trees fall, the roots rip up caverns, making it easy for bears and other critters to dig deeper tunnels.  This part of the trail was busy and noisy.  We were sandwiched between a motorcycle convention in the parking lot and a hiker playing loud music.

I do not recommend Great Smoky Mountains National Park for tourists interested in wildlife viewing.  By far the most common large mammal species in the park is Homo sapiens–the park is badly overcrowded.  The main highway #441 that bisects the park has bumper-to-bumper traffic.  I even got stuck in a traffic jam.  Supposedly, the park holds 6,000 white tail deer, 1600 black bear, 600 wild boar, and 100 elk.  The only mammals I saw were an estimated 40,000 people and one gray squirrel–a bitter disappointment.  Supposedly, 200 species of birds reside in the park.  I saw 5, and they were species commonly seen in Augusta, Georgia where I live.

95% of the park is a closed canopy forest; the balance is meadow.  Some of the forested area is old growth.  Large mammal populations are low in old growth forests, and what little lives there is hidden in the trees.  No timbering is allowed so mast-producing trees, such as oaks,  are being shaded out by less productive trees.  Coupled with the loss of the chestnuts to the blight in the last century, this means there is little food available for large mammals.  Moreover, most of the areas in the park that are favorable for wildlife viewing were closed. Cades Cove, Roaring Fork, and Clingman’s Dome were all closed either for maintenance or due to rock slides.  Cataloochee Valley, on the eastern side of the park where the elk were re-introduced, is remote and difficult to access.  It’s at the end of a long, winding, unpaved road that’s steep and has a speed limit of 5 mph.  Because my wife’s disabled, I was nervous about continuing on this road.  If our car broke down, it would’ve been a disaster because she couldn’t walk back to civilization.  So I turned back.

I didn’t even see any interesting small mammals.  Red squirrels, also known as chickarees, inhabit the park as well as chipmunks and woodchucks.  None of these species live near Augusta, but alas I didn’t see them here either.

I did see lots of butterflies, especially eastern tiger swallowtails.  Their larvae feed on many of the tree species so common here.  I also saw two different kinds of butterflies from the Pieridae family.

The museum at the park welcome center had many fine stuffed specimens.  The museum affords about the only opportunity for a visitor ot see animals in the park.

I did catch a whiff of a nearby skunk at Newfound Gap.  It didn’t smell as bad as our hotel room which I nicknamed the Armpit Motel.

This is a tulip tree trunk.  Large, mature tulip trees are a dominant tree in the park.  None I saw approached this is circumference.  Most people don’t realize that much of the original forest in this area was leveled by 1910.   The forest now consists of second growth.

This is the biggest bald faced hornets next I’ve ever seen.  They’re a marvel of insect engineering.

Supposedly, this is a trout stream.  The waters are clear but I saw no fish, turtles, frogs, or fish-eating birds.  Don’t expect to catch trout here.  The only trout left in the area are grown on fish farms.

Admittedly, I’m a cynic.  I suspected the park administration exaggerated mammal population estimates to encourage tourism.  So to prove to myself that animals actually live in the park, I looked for tourist videos of wildlife in the park on youtube as evidence that they weren’t just making these figures up.   I don’t have direct links but do a search at for “Bear breaks into car at Clingman’s Dome,” “Cades Cove black bear,” and “Elk in the Cataloochee Valley.”  Note how incredibly ignorant some of the tourists act around bears.  The footage of bears tearing up logs while looking for termites, and another of one digging up a yellow jacket nest is interesting.  The video of a bull elk bugling, while the rest of the herd rests behind a flock of turkeys is the kind of scene I had hoped to see.

Overall, I think the park is poorly managed and underfunded.  The current ratio of closed canopy forest to meadow limits quality wildlife habitat and viewing.  Selective tree cutting, as practiced by native Americans, would improve both.  Bison, wild horses, cougars, and wolves should be re-introduced.